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Welcome to the “Heart of Darkness,” where the militants rule and most Afghans are stuck between the Taliban and U.S. troops.
CAMP WILSON, Afghanistan — The patrol was going fine until the trucks got stuck.
The rear wheels of two massive, 30-ton armored troops carriers were buried up to the top of the rim in a wet, thick mud. Then the shooting started.
The vehicles were part of a combat patrol organized by C Company of the 1st battalion, 12th Infantry. Company commander Duke Reim led his men on foot through villages and fields on a mission to find out who was living in a region that is in his area of responsibility but into which his unit has never ventured.
Reim and his men had just talked to locals who told them how the Taliban imposed a curfew in the area, and how the Talibs warned villagers that if they told the soldiers anything they would be killed.
Then, after the soldiers had left, and just a few hundred feet from where they had talked to Afghan villagers, shots rang out across the open field.
The soldiers scrambled for cover, ready for a fight. They looked for the shooter, but saw no one. C Company’s third platoon leader, Lt. Nathan Wagnon, said it wasn’t an attack; it was a message.
“It’s just harassing fire,” he said. “They’re basically just letting us know that, hey we know you’re here and we don’t like it.”
This area is called the “Heart of Darkness,” and sits just a mile from the battalion’s main base. It’s an area where the Taliban rules and Talibs move around on motorbikes with near impunity in miles of heavily vegetated, sparsely populated flood plain.
The 1-12 battalion is part of an effort to secure the villages surrounding Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar. Kandahar city has been called the “Center of Gravity” in the fight in southern Afghanistan. Coalition forces are ringing the city in an effort to prevent the Taliban from gaining power and mounting attacks inside the city
On the edge of that ring is C Company of the 1-12. Like much of Afghanistan, the company is in charge of a large swaths of rural territory too big for its limited number of troops to secure. So the coalition and the villagers are making do in a kind of in-between world, that leaves many Afghans stuck between — and equally fearful of — the Taliban and the U.S. troops.
Each side’s territory is pretty clear. A road that runs south from the battalion’s base, called Camp Wilson, divides the area that his men can patrol, and the area the Taliban effectively control.